Burundi's anger over ethnic feud explodes

David Orr sees the President stoned by mourners as he attends a funeral of massacre victims
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Bugendena - The helicopter swooped low over the thousands of mourners who had gathered for the funeral of their friends and relatives, 350 members of Burundi's minority Tutsi group massacred last weekend by extremists from the Hutu majority.

The Prime Minister, Antoine Nduwayo, had arrived in Bugendena in central Burundi by helicopter earlier and was talking with the Archbishop of Gitega, Monsignor Joachin Ruhuna, at the edge of the large field where the crowd was assembled.

All eyes were turned towards the helicopter as President Sylvestre Ntibantungangna stepped from it on to the ground. A small group of international journalists moved to the front of the crowd which was being held back by soldiers armed with automatic weapons. The photographers stepped forward to record the meeting between the Tutsi Prime Minister and the Hutu President.

They barely shook hands before turning away from one another. As the President, known as Ntiba, walked across the open space, a mob of angry protesters surged forward, jeering and hissing.

"Arrest Ntiba and his acolytes immediately" read one placard held aloft. Another featured a drawing of the President drinking Tutsi blood alongside Leonard Nyangoma, the Hutu rebel leader blamed for masterminding last weekend's massacre at Bugendena.

A rhythmic chanting arose from the protesters pushing towards the President, whose discomfort was quickly turning to fear. They started throwing branches and sticks. Soon a hail of rocks was falling from the sky and the terrified President was beating a hasty retreat. Mr Nduwayo did nothing to calm the mob. A handful of anxious soldiers circled around the retreating President, safety catches off their weapons.

As a clump of earth hit the President on the chest, his bodyguards pulled their pistols from their pockets and hustled their charge towards the waiting helicopter.

A French reporter was struck by a brick. Other journalists had narrow escapes as the protesters lobbed more rocks and shouted slogans against the foreign media. Many Tutsis have been angered by a French radio report which they say fudged the issue of who is guilty for the country's largest massacre since ethnic fighting began in 1993.

The President took off, never having managed to visit two mass graves where the victims had been laid out in simplecoffins.

Charred bodies of men, women and children were still being pulled out of burned buildings hours before the funeral. Others were being found in the undergrowth three days after the attack by Hutu extremists. The authorities now say that as many as 350 people were butchered at Bugendena, a settlement of 1,800 Tutsis who had become displaced from their homes in 1993. Most of those who died were women and children. Many of their men folk had perished in the fighting that followed a coup attempt by Tutsi troops three years ago.

Bugendena's inhabitants had just risen on Saturday when more than 1,000 chanting men and women descended on the community. The raiders used guns, and hacked at the residents with machetes. Grenades were thrown and many people were doused with petrol and burned alive. The attack has been blamed on Hutu peasants led by extremists of Mr Nyangoma's CNDD party. Rwandan Hutus, members of the former Rwandan army now exiled in Zaire, are also said to have been involved.

"These people were innocent" the Prime Minister told the 2,000 mourners. "They were killed because of their ethnic origin, please don't take revenge. Burundians must fight for peace and avoid killing."

As Mr Nduwayo spoke a bitter murmur arose from among the mourners.

Having agreed to an initiative for a peace-keeping force to move into Burundi, the Prime Minister has said that he no longer believes foreign intervention can help. Many Western diplomats believe he could be overthrown at any time.